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ABC Pulls Plug on a Rerun of ‘thirtysomething’

A controversy over an episode of last season’s “thirtysomething” is warming up again in the summer heat.

At issue in the Nov. 7 episode was a scene showing two gay men conversing in bed after having sex. Lasting less than two minutes, the scene itself was hardly torrid. No kissing. No touching. No heavy breathing. Just two adults discussing being gay and the friends they’d lost to AIDS.

It was the response, in some quarters, that was hot.

Benign as it was, the scene prompted advertisers to desert the episode in mass. And now fearing a repeat, ABC is withholding the episode from its summer rerun schedule--one of only two of the season’s 24 original episodes that is not slated for rebroadcast.

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By doing this, the network is getting under the sheets, too. It’s in bed with the narrow-minded ignoramuses who believe that this plausible, intelligent and sensitive depiction of gays makes “thirtysomething” dirtysomething.

Such behavior from the same ABC that boldly backed the episode when it originally ran?

“I’m coming away from this without a guilty feeling, but not with my head held high,” ABC Entertainment President Robert Iger said in acknowledging that fear of advertiser flight is behind the network’s move to exclude the episode.

The story featured paralleling homosexual and heterosexual love affairs, one involving Russell, a recurring gay character played by David Marshall Grant, the other involving Melissa, a major continuing character played by Melanie Mayron.

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Obviously fearing a homophobic backlash, advertisers were terrified.

Iger said that the sponsor defection cost ABC “more than $1 million, and we were advised by our sales department (that) we would potentially experience a similar loss if we reran it.”

Great timing.

Timidity is never timely. But with the National Endowment for the Arts and freedom of expression in general threatened by supercensors and gay bashers everywhere, this is the worst possible moment for ABC to bury integrity and favor profits over principle. No matter the circumstances, its abandonment of the episode in question is indefensible.

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Said “thirtysomething” producer Richard Kramer, who wrote the episode: “I’m really sickened by this and feel we’re being censored by advertisers who are not equipped to make this judgment. At this point in history, it’s up to organizations like ABC to show they will not be victims of advertisers’ whims.”

Added Michael Shere, chairman for the Response Committee of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation: “We suspect the network is bowing to pressure from the radical right.”

Iger, however, said that the decision to omit the episode was made in “full consultation” with “thirtysomething” executive producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. “I told them that if they felt it were important to run this episode, they would have my full support, but that if they did not consider it a particularly important issue, that I, based on the economic issue, would not run it. They came back to me and said they did not find it important enough to fight for. Actually, they wouldn’t have had to fight for it.”

Zwick essentially agreed with Iger’s account. “ABC came to us with a financial problem in that they stood to lose further money if the episode was rerun,” he said. “And as their financial partners, Marshall and I were sensitive to their needs.” (Herskovitz was out of the country and unavailable for comment.)

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Just the same, he added, “it would be fatuous to say this had anything to do with other than the issues of pressure, and I’m saddened by one’s need to respond to any pressure outside of one’s conscience.”

Zwick said that he did feel “somewhat complicitous” in that he hadn’t been “willing to go to the wall on this issue.” The reason, he said, was that he didn’t want to risk losing the war by spending his bullets on a single skirmish.

“In shows to come, we have a more serious agenda having to do with the same subject matter,” Zwick said, “and I think that’s where the battle should be fought. We plan to bring this character (Russell) back, and ABC has promised support of him and the issues of his life.” Zwick declined to elaborate, except to say that some of the show’s coming episodes may expose ABC to even “much greater economic hardship” and that “we may have to do more pitched battle with pressure groups.”

Although never much of a commercial hit, “thirtysomething” has always been a creative one, attracting a loyal core audience with its sensitive and witty probing of human relationships. It’s known for unexploitative sexual frankness (Melissa talks about her lover being “inside me,” for example), but even more so for its candor and perceptiveness in dealing with a host of other tender topics. Last season, for example, a major character battled cancer.

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Zwick and Kramer praised ABC for its past support of the series. And Iger said that ABC would continue to let the producers “explore new territory, even if the territory they explore creates economic hardship” for the network. Moreover, he didn’t discount the possibility that the disputed episode would be rerun sometime after this summer.

Yet by excluding the episode now, ABC is painting a target on its own soft underbelly and showing pressure groups exactly where it’s vulnerable. The message to them is that bullying advertisers pays, and that if advertisers buckle, ABC will buckle.

Iger disagrees. “I am not sending a message here that a sponsor can determine whether a program is put on the air,” he said. “If I had 24 slots for reruns of ‘thirtysomething’ and needed all of the episodes, this one would run.”

Ironically, ABC reports that slightly more than half of just under 3,000 letters that came in about the episode were supportive. That means the wimpy advertisers that defected--ABC will not identify them--may have been exaggerating the opposition.

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When Melissa presses her friend Russell about his romantic liaison, he tells her “we slept together,” but adds, “it’s no big deal, OK?” That’s the point: It’s no big deal at all.


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